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Journal of Economic PerspectivesVolume 26, Number 3Summer 2012Pages 326

A Search and Matching Approach to


Labor Markets: Did the Natural Rate of
Unemployment Rise?
Mary C. Daly, Bart Hobijn, Aysegl Sahin,

and
Robert G. Valletta

he increase in the U.S. unemployment rate associated with the 20072009


recession is unprecedented during the postWorld War II era. The unemployment rate rose by 5.6 percentage points from a low of 4.4 percent in late
2006 and early 2007 to 10.0 percent in October 2009; this exceeds the net increase of
5.2 percentage points between mid-1979 and late 1982 (which spans two recessionary
episodes). Moreover, in contrast to relatively rapid labor market recoveries following
prior, deeper, postWorld War II recessions, two and a half years into this recovery,
as of early 2012, the unemployment rate had declined by only about 1.7 percentage
points. Such persistently anemic labor market conditions are partly a reflection of the
sluggish overall economic recovery, a common occurrence following financial crises
(Reinhart and Rogoff 2009; Jord, Schularick, and Taylor 2011). The lackluster pace
of job creation has barely kept up with trend labor force growth and therefore has
not generated enough jobs to make a significant dent in the unemployment rate or
substantially reduce unemployment duration. Moreover, as we will discuss in more
detail later, the unemployment rate has remained high relative to its historical relationship with other business cycle indicators, such as job vacancy rates.
The disconnect between the unemployment rate and other indicators of aggregate economic conditions has raised the concern that rather than being purely
cyclical, U.S. unemployment now contains a substantial structural component that
will persist even after the U.S. economy has fully recovered from the recession. In
Mary C. Daly is Associate Director of Research and Group Vice President, Bart Hobijn is
Senior Research Adviser, and Robert G. Valletta is Research Adviser, all at the Federal Reserve
Bank of San Francisco, San Francisco, California. Aysegl Sahin

is Assistant Vice President,


Federal Reserve Bank of New York, New York City, New York. Daly is the corresponding
author at mary.daly@sf.frb.org .

http://dx.doi.org/10.1257/jep.26.3.3.

doi=10.1257/jep.26.3.3

Journal of Economic Perspectives

turn, this concern implies that the full employment or natural rate of unemployment is now higher than it was before the recession. The distinction is crucial from
a policy perspective, because in general, short-run monetary and fiscal stabilization policies are designed to address a cyclical shortfall in labor demand rather
than structural factors in the labor market; such structural factors may include a
mismatch between workers skills or geographic locations and employers labor
needs, or the effects of changes in the generosity of social welfare programs.
However, understanding how much of the sustained high level of unemployment is
cyclical or structural is a challenging task, a point emphasized by Diamond (2011)
in his recent Nobel Prize Lecture and illustrated by the wide span of views on the
topic held by economists and policymakers.
In this paper, we use a search and matching framework to assess the degree to
which the natural rate of unemployment has changed and the reasons underlying
any changes. In the first section, we discuss the implications of a standard textbook
model of frictional unemployment based on a search and matching framework
(Pissarides 2000, chap. 1). This model specifies two curvesthe Beveridge curve
and the job creation curvethat capture labor supply and labor demand factors, as
reflected in the unemployment and job vacancy rates, and that interact to determine
equilibrium frictional unemployment. Using this framework, we estimate that the
natural rate of unemployment has increased over the recession and recovery, but by
far less than unemployment has risen. Our preferred estimate indicates an increase
in the natural rate of unemployment of about one percentage point during the
recession and its immediate aftermath, putting the current natural rate at around
6 percent. Importantly, even at the maximum of our range of plausible estimates,
we find the natural rate increased by only about one and a half percentage points,
which would boost the current natural rate to about 6.6 percent. For context, the
highest natural rate in the last few decades as estimated by the Congressional Budget
Office (2011) was 6.3 percent in 1978.
In the second part of the analysis, we focus on the three primary factors that
economists have offered that may account for an increase in the natural rate of
unemployment: 1) a mismatch between the characteristics of job openings, such as
skill requirements or location, and the characteristics of the unemployed; 2) the
availability of extended unemployment insurance benefits, which may reduce the intensity
of job search or cause some recipients to claim they are looking for work, which is
a requirement for benefits receipt, when they have in fact effectively left the workforce; and 3) uncertainty about economic conditions,, which may have induced firms to
focus their efforts on raising productivity and output without extensive hiring of
new employees.1 We argue that the increase in mismatch has been quite limited. We
find a larger contribution arising from extended unemployment insurance benefits,
although this effect is likely to disappear when such benefits are allowed to expire.
1
More broadly, this evidence will draw upon our previous work on the labor market during the recession
and recovery: Daly and Hobijn (2010), Elsby, Hobijn, and S ahin (2010), Kwok, Daly, and Hobijn (2010),
Valletta and Kuang (2010a, b), as well as Wilson (2010).

Mary C. Daly, Bart Hobijn, Aysegl S ahin, and Robert G. Valletta

Finally, we provide speculative evidence that the unusual degree of uncertainty may
be contributing to elevated unemployment through the resulting suppression of
hiring; again, this factor would be expected to ease as these uncertainties are resolved.
Overall, we conclude that although the natural rate of unemployment has risen
to a moderate degree over the last few years, substantial slack remains in the labor
market and is likely to persist for several years. Moreover, since most of the increase
in the natural rate appears to be transitory, we expect that as the cyclical recovery
in the labor market proceeds, the natural rate will fall back to a value close to its
pre-recession level of around 5 percent.

The Equilibrium Natural Rate of Unemployment in a Search Model


The equilibrium natural rate of unemployment is the average rate of unemployment that would prevail in the absence of business cycle fluctuations (Brauer
2007). Underlying the natural rate is frictional unemployment, which reflects
the normal time that the unemployed spend in job search, and structural unemployment, which reflects mismatches between employers labor demand and the
skills and geographic location of the unemployed; the two terms are often used
synonymously. The natural rate is conceptually similar but not identical to the nonaccelerating inflation rate of unemployment, or NAIRU, which defines equilibrium
unemployment as the rate at which price inflation is not changing.
The concept of a natural rate was originally introduced by Milton Friedman
(1968) and Edmond Phelps (1968) as a way to distinguish between cyclical swings
in unemployment that monetary policy can affect and structural changes that it
cannot. Under the standard neoclassical assumption of fully flexible prices for
factors of production and output, the natural rate is primarily determined by the
characteristics of workers and the efficiency of the labor market matching process.
These factors affect the rate at which jobs are simultaneously created and destroyed,
the rate of turnover in particular jobs, and how quickly unemployed workers are
matched with vacant positions. Given the severe shock to labor markets in the most
recent recession and the unusually vigorous expansion in a narrow set of housingrelated and financial sectors that preceded the downturn, it is reasonable to ask
whether some of these noncyclical factors have been altered in a way that increases
the natural rate of unemployment in either the short or the long term.
Frictional Unemployment in Equilibrium
To assess the factors affecting the unemployment rate in the short run as well as
its longer-run level, we rely on the model of equilibrium frictional unemployment
from Pissarides (2000, chap. 1). In this model, equilibrium unemployment is determined by the intersection of two curves: the Beveridge curve (BC), which depicts
a negative relationship between vacancies (job openings) and the unemployment
rate, and the job creation curve (JCC), which reflects employers decisions to
create job openings and can loosely be interpreted as an aggregate labor demand

Journal of Economic Perspectives

Figure 1
Determinants of Shifts in Equilibrium Unemployment

Vacancy rate (v)

Job Creation
Curve ( JCC)

JCC

BC

Beveridge
Curve (BC)
Unemployment rate (u)
Source: Authors.

curve. We use this framework to analyze the potential increase in the natural rate of
unemployment. Daly, Hobijn, and Valletta (2011) offer further details and a formal
presentation of the underlying model.
In frictionless models of the labor market, wages adjust to equate labor demand
to labor supply in a spot market, which excludes the existence of unemployment as
an equilibrium outcome. However, in labor market models with search frictions, not
every employer that is looking to hire finds a worker, and not every job searcher finds
an employer. Therefore, the labor market does not fully clear in each period, and
some job openings remain unfilled at the same time that some job seekers remain
unemployed. Because employers and job seekers each benefit from a job match, wages
are determined by the bargain between employers and employees over the surplus
generated by the match, which occurs after the match.2 So the equilibrium in this
model is defined in terms of vacancies and unemploymentthe intersection of the BC
and JCCrather than wages and the equilibrium level of employment. Figure 1 (based
on Figure 1.2 in Pissarides 2000, p. 20) depicts a typical BC and JCC relationship.
To understand how the Beveridge curve and job creation curve interact to
produce equilibrium vacancy and unemployment rates, it is useful to review the
determinants of each curve separately. As implied in the original research of its
2

Assumptions about the type of wage bargaining are important for the cyclical properties of the model
(Pissarides 2009) but are not important for the equilibrium concept we focus on here.

Did the Natural Rate of Unemployment Rise?

namesake (Beveridge 1944) and formalized in subsequent research, the Beveridge


curve is essentially a production possibility frontier for the job matching capabilities
of the labor market, where the rate at which job seekers are matched to job openings
depends primarily on the ratio of the vacancy rate to the unemployment rate (Dow
and Dicks-Mireaux 1958; Blanchard and Diamond 1989; Petrongolo and Pissarides
2001). The job vacancy rate is constructed (analogous to the unemployment rate) as a
ratio of the number of vacancies to the sum of the total employed plus the number of
vacancies. It measures the incidence of open but unfilled jobs in the economy. Movement along the BC reflects cyclical changes in aggregate labor demand: for example,
as labor demand weakens, vacancies decline and the unemployment rate rises, causing
movement towards the lower right in the diagram. By contrast, an outward shift in
the overall position of the BC reflects a decline in the efficiency of the job matching
process: for a given level of vacancies, workers have more trouble finding acceptable
jobs, and for a given level of unemployment, firms have more trouble finding suitable workers.3 All else equal, reduced matching efficiency will raise the frictional or
structural level of unemployment, hence the natural rate of unemployment.
As Figure 1 shows, the Beveridge curve by itself does not determine an equilibrium
combination of vacancies and unemployment. This requires the job creation curve,
which is determined by firms recruiting behavior. Firms hire workers to produce
output and will create vacancies up to the point where the expected value of a job
match equals the expected search cost to fill the vacancy. The expected value of a
job match is determined by the marginal product of labor. The expected search cost
combines firms direct recruiting expenses with the probability that a job is filled.
In the basic model we discuss here, the probability of filling a job rises with
the unemployment rate. Thus, the job creation curve is upward sloping, implying
that firms create more job openings when unemployment is higher (as depicted in
Figure 1). The exact degree of upward slope is affected by other factors that may
change over time or across the business cycle, such as the job separation rate, the
level of recruiting costs, and the value of jobs (as reflected in worker productivity
and the value of output). More generally, the slope of the JCC depends on the
structure of the product and labor markets in which firms operate and how they
bargain over wages, as well as external factors such as the discount or interest rate.
Changes in the expected value of a job associated with changes in the marginal
product of labor can shift the job creation curve (as depicted in Figure 1). This
is a channel through which shifts in aggregate demand can affect the unemployment rate even when the efficiency of the job matching process is unchanged. For
example, in recessions, declines in aggregate demand reduce the marginal product
of labor, which reduces the value of creating jobs. This causes the JCC to rotate

Petrongolo and Pissarides (2001) describe the derivation of the Beveridge curve from an underlying
job matching technology and discuss functional forms for the job matching function. The BC is typically
depicted as convex to the origin, which is consistent with job matching functions that have constant
returns to scale in unemployment and vacancies (and hence diminishing returns to either factor with
the other one fixed).

Journal of Economic Perspectives

down, resulting in a higher unemployment rate with no shift in the Beveridge curve.
Although this decline in aggregate demand increases measured unemployment,
it does not raise the natural rate of unemployment. Theoretically, the JCC can
also shift in response to changes in firm search costs. If the probability of filling a
vacancy falls, for example due to a rise in skill mismatch, the JCC will rotate down,
indicating a lower rate of vacancies posted for a given job value.
The key implication of this model is that the equilibrium unemployment rate is
determined jointly by the intersection of the Beveridge curve and the job creation
curve. In this framework, changes in the equilibrium unemployment rate, point a in
Figure 1, can occur due to an outward shift in the BC, a downward shift in the JCC,
or a combination of both. The example in Figure 1 illustrates how shifts in these
curves can affect equilibrium unemployment. In the illustration, an outward shift in
the BC from BC to BC
BC shifts equilibrium unemployment from a to b.. Since the JCC
is upward sloping, equilibrium unemployment increases by less than the outward
shift in the BC. In this model, the unemployment rate can only increase by the same
amount as the rightward shift in the BC if the JCC is flat or shifts outward (or down)
as in JC
JC. In these cases, equilibrium unemployment would move from b to c..
One main message from this graphical illustration is that knowledge of the
Beveridge curve is not sufficient to draw conclusions about equilibrium unemployment. As the figure shows, it is not possible to infer, for a given shift in the BC,
how much the unemployment rate changes without knowing the shape of the job
creation curve. This point may seem obvious, but it has been overlooked in policy
discussions in which shifts in the BC are interpreted as one-for-one increases in the
natural rate of unemployment.
The insights from this model of equilibrium frictional unemployment point
to two directions for empirical analysis. First, to understand the driving forces of
the rise in the unemployment rate, one must consider not only what is shifting
the Beveridge curve and by how much, but also what is affecting firms incentives
for job creation. Second, to distinguish what part of the rise in the unemployment
rate reflects purely cyclical fluctuations in labor demand and what parts are due to
other factors, either transitory or permanent, that raise the natural rate, one has
to consider what is driving the shifts in the BC and the JCC and how long these
effects are likely to last. We consider these in turn.
Empirical Estimates of the Beveridge Curve
Policymakers and analysts who have posited a rise in structural unemployment
have largely focused on movements in the empirical Beveridge curve (for example,
Benson 2011; Bernanke 2010; Kocherlakota 2010). As noted earlier, this focus is
problematic on theoretical grounds, and here we show that empirically, there are
at least two difficulties with relying on simple plots of the BC to make inferences
about changes in equilibrium unemployment. First, estimates of the shift in the
empirical BC suggest that the horizontal shift is not uniform but instead is larger at
lower levels of the vacancy rate (as will be demonstrated below). Second, consistent
with an upward-sloping job creation curve, past horizontal shifts in the BC have

Mary C. Daly, Bart Hobijn, Aysegl S ahin, and Robert G. Valletta

Figure 2
The U.S. Beveridge Curve, December 2000November 2011
5%
Fitted

Shifted

Vacancy rate

4%

3%

Before
2007 recession

Since 2007 recession


Gap 2.1%
Nov-11

2%

1%
2%

3%

4%

5%

6%
7%
Unemployment rate

8%

9%

10%

11%

Sources: Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS), Current Population Survey, and authors
calculations.
Notes: Data are monthly observations. The fitted Beveridge curve is constructed using pre-2007-recession
data. The fitted and shifted Beveridge curves are calculated using the methodology introduced in
Barnichon, Elsby, Hobijn, and S ahin (2010). The black dots indicate data since the 2007 recession.

been found upon later analysis to coincide with much smaller movements in the
estimated natural rate of unemployment (or the twin concept of the NAIRU).4 This
finding underscores the empirical relevance of the other curve in the modelthe
JCCwhich we also analyze empirically below.
Figure 2 displays the empirical Beveridge curve based on data from the U.S.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. It combines the official unemployment rate formed
from the Bureaus monthly household survey (the Current Population Survey)
with data on job openings from the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey
(JOLTS). The JOLTS is a monthly survey of about 16,000 establishments that was
established relatively recently, with data first becoming available in December 2000.

The natural rate is not an observable entity. Rather it is estimated using historical information on the
unemployment patterns of demographic subgroups or in the case of the NAIRU, generated from various
Phillips curve models. Real-time estimates of the natural rate are frequently revised as a consensus forms
regarding cyclical versus more structural adjustments in the data.

10

Journal of Economic Perspectives

It focuses on job turnover, collecting information on job openings, hires, quits,


layoffs and discharges, and other separations. (JOLTS survey information is
available online at http://www.bls.gov/jlt/home.htm
http://www.bls.gov/jlt/home.htm.) The Beveridge curve
in Figure 2 uses data for December 2000 through November 2011. The data are
divided into pre- and post-recession groups with observations occurring prior to
the 20072009 recession labeled as lighter points and the observations occurring
since the recession labeled as darker points. The solid line represents an estimate
of the empirical relationship between the unemployment and vacancy rates prior to
the onset of the recession, based on the underlying transition rates between the
labor force states of employment, unemployment, and out of the labor force
(updated from Barnichon, Elsby, Hobijn, and S ahin 2010).
As noted previously, the position of the post-recession points relative to the
fitted curve has been interpreted by some observers as evidence of a substantial
rightward shift in the Beveridge curve, indicating a higher unemployment rate for
a given rate of job vacancies. The logic underlying this interpretation is illustrated
in Figure 2. In November 2011, the last point in our sample, the unemployment
rate was 8.7 percent. Drawing a horizontal line from that point to the pre-recession,
fitted BC produces an unemployment gap of 2.1 percentage points.5
However, inferring an outward shift in the Beveridge curve in this manner
is problematic for three reasons. First, as the BC shifts right, it also tilts, so that
the horizontal shift is not uniform across all levels of the vacancy rate. To see
this, consider the shifted curve plotted as the dashed line in Figure 2, which is an
update of the estimated shifted BC in Barnichon, Elsby, Hobijn, and S ahin (2010).
In this figure, the size of the horizontal shift in the BC varies across the vacancy
rate. At the November 2011 vacancy rate of 2.3 percent, the horizontal shift equals
2.1 percentage points; at a vacancy rate of 3.0 percent along the same curve, the
horizontal shift is only 1.6 percentage points. The concurrent shifting and tilting
implies that estimates of the rightward shift in the BC at low vacancy rates will overstate the size of the shift at higher levels of the vacancy rate.
Second, estimating real-time movements in the Beveridge curve is difficult
because the size of the implied shift depends heavily on the specific month chosen.
In 2010 and 2011, estimates of the shift obtained in this manner varied from about
1.5 to over 3 percentage points. This large variation in the implied shift occurs
because the recently observed points are near a very flat part of the BC, which
combines large changes in the unemployment rate with small changes in vacancy
rates. In other words, the concavity or flattening of the BC at high unemployment
rates means that the outward shift implied by a specific increase in the vacancy rate
is not uniform, but rather increases as unemployment rises.
Finally, as noted in earlier research, the movement of vacancies and unemployment back to the stable Beveridge curve following a labor market shock typically follows
5
The size of the imputed current gap is not very sensitive to the estimation method applied. The
nonlinear ordinary least squares estimate in Valletta and Kuang (2010b) yields a similar size gap, as does
the recalibrated version of Shimers (2007) Beveridge curve model presented by Kocherlakota (2010).

Did the Natural Rate of Unemployment Rise?

11

Figure 3
Historical Shifts in the Beveridge Curve, 19512011
6%
1970s

1960s

Vacancy rate

5%

4%
1950s
3%

1980s
1990s

2%

2000s

1%
2%

4%

6%
8%
Unemployment rate

10%

12%

Sources: BLS, Conference Board, Barnichon (2010), and authors calculations.


Notes: Data are quarterly averages. Recession quarters are squares. The black dots are the 2000s and
correspond to the part of the Beveridge curve displayed in Figure 2.

a counterclockwise adjustment pattern (for example, Bowden 1980; Blanchard and


Diamond 1989). This pattern occurs because firms can adjust their targeted hiring (job
openings) rapidly when labor market conditions improve, but the matching process
that will effectively reduce the unemployment rate lags behind the increase in labor
demand. As such, the unemployment-vacancy combinations observed in the aftermath
of a recession may primarily represent the labor market adjustment process back to a
stable BC rather than an outward shift in the BC. For all of these reasons, it is difficult
to draw definitive conclusions about shifts in the BC from the pattern of unemployment and vacancy rates observed in the aftermath of the recent severe recession.
Even if we were to take the range of monthly estimates as information about
recent shifts in the Beveridge curve, historical comparisons suggest that the recent
rightward shift in the BC does not necessarily imply a similarly sized increase in the
NAIRU. Using a constructed series on job vacancies created by Barnichon (2010)
that combines data from JOLTS with the Help-Wanted Index published by the
Conference Board, Figure 3 plots historical BCs for the past six decades. Several
facts are worth highlighting. First, the counterclockwise dynamics noted above, in
which vacancies adjust more quickly than does unemployment in the aftermath of

12

Journal of Economic Perspectives

recessions, are evident in various past cycles. We labeled this pattern with arrows
for each of the recessions in the figure. Second, as can be seen from the groupings
of data points by decade as labeled in the figure, the BC has shifted considerably
over time. The BC shifted rightward about 4 percentage points between the 1960s
and the early 1980s and then shifted back about 2.5 percentage points between
1984 and 1989. Based on this history, the current outward shift of the BC is not
unusual, falling within the range of shifts that occurred during past business cycles.
Most importantly perhaps, based on estimates now available, the variation in the
NAIRU over these periods was much smaller than the horizontal movement in
the Beveridge curve. Indeed, estimates of the NAIRU over these earlier periods
suggest that it may have changed by about half as much as the shift in the Beveridge
curve (for example, Brauer 2007; Orphanides and Williams 2002).
An Estimate of the Long-Run Job Creation Curve
To our knowledge, there are no existing estimates of the historical U.S. job
creation curve. We therefore provide a rudimentary estimate here. Although the
job creation curve can exhibit short-run movements, we focus on estimating its longrun shape, since we are mainly interested in establishing empirically the relationship
between unemployment and job vacancies in the absence of cyclical fluctuations.
Our estimate is based on the theoretical relationships discussed earlier which showed
that the intersection of the BC and JCC gives us the equilibrium level of frictional
unemployment, or the natural rate. Based on this relationship we can use information
about the average vacancy rate at various values of the natural rate of unemployment
to estimate the natural rate of vacancies, or the vacancy rate in the absence of cyclical
fluctuations. This approach essentially takes the historical shifts in the Beveridge
curve plotted in Figure 3 and translates them into a long-run job creation curve via
our current estimates of the natural rate that prevailed at those times.
The results of this exercise are shown in Figure 4, which plots quarterly observations from the historical vacancy rate series used in Figure 3 against the estimates
of the natural rate of unemployment from the Congressional Budget Office. Each
of the vertical stacks of points on Figure 4 correspond to one of the Beveridge
curves plotted (and given decade labels) in Figure 3. So each point in the vertical
stack represents the normal cyclical movements along a given Beveridge curve, or
alternatively, the cyclical fluctuations in labor demand for a given natural rate of
unemployment. The dotted line shows the relationship between the average level
of vacancies and the natural rate of unemployment in the U.S. economy over the
sample period (1951:Q1 through 2011:Q3). The line comes from a regression of
the historical vacancy rate series on the natural rate of unemployment, using data
points observed prior to the recent recession. The regression shows a statistically
significant upward-sloping relationship between the average vacancy rate and the
natural rate of unemployment. We interpret this relationship as support for the view
that the long-run job creation curve is upward sloping.
Of course, our estimate is rudimentary and, like the empirical Beveridge
curve, based on data that could itself be mismeasured. For example, there is some

Mary C. Daly, Bart Hobijn, Aysegl S ahin, and Robert G. Valletta

13

Figure 4
Estimated Long-Run Job Creation Curve
6%

Vacancy rate

5%

Before 2007 recession

4%

3%

2%
Since 2007 recession
Regression: Vacancy rate = 2.5 + 1.1 * Natural rate of unemployment, R 2 = 0.33

1%
4.5%

5.0%

5.5%

6.0%

6.5%

Natural rate of unemployment


Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Congressional Budget Office, and authors calculations.
Notes: Seasonally adjusted quarterly data. Regression based on pre-2008 data. The black dots indicate
data since the 2007 recession.

disagreement on whether our data accurately capture the historical vacancy rate.
Abraham (1987) points out that some of the variation in the Help-Wanted Index
data used for the construction of the historical vacancy rate time series reflect a
longer-run trend due to the occupational mix of job openings, the consolidation in
the newspaper industry, and the increased requirements to post job openings for
Equal Employment Opportunity purposes. These factors likely drove up the index
relative to the actual number of vacancies during the period of rising unemployment in the 1970s and 1980s, which might lead to an overestimate of the slope of
the long-run job creation curve. Estimates of the natural rate of unemployment also
can vary. Alternative estimates such as those computed by Orphanides and Williams
(2002), which allow for greater time variation in the natural rate than the Congressional Budget Office estimate, produce a slightly flatter JCC.
Putting the Empirical Beveridge Curve and Job Creation Curve Together
To estimate the potential increase in the natural rate of unemployment
following the most recent recession, we combine our estimates of the pre-recession
and shifted Beveridge curves from Figure 2 with the estimated long-run job creation

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Journal of Economic Perspectives

Figure 5
Estimated Job Creation and Beveridge Curves
5%

Empirical JCC curve


Fitted BC

Shifted BC

Vacancy rate

4%

3%

Nov-11
2%

1%
2%

3%

4%

5.5%

6.6%

5%
6%
Unemployment rate

7%

8%

9%

10%

Sources: Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey ( JOLTS), Current Population Survey, Congressional
Budget Office, and authors calculations.
Notes: BC is Beveridge curve. JCC is job creation curve.

curve from Figure 4. The results of this combination are presented in Figure 5.
As the figure shows, the empirical long-run JCC intersects the fitted pre-recession
Beveridge curve at slightly below a 5 percent unemployment rate, which is very
close to the Congressional Budget Office estimate of the pre-recession level of
the natural rate. The vacancy rate that coincides with this unemployment rate on
the fitted Beveridge curve is 3.1 percent. The shifted BC and the empirical long-run
JCC intersect at an unemployment rate of 5.5 percent. If one were to use alternative time-varying estimates of the natural rate of unemployment, the estimated job
creation curve would be flatter, and the estimate of the natural rate would increase.
For this reason, we interpret the 5.5 percent estimate as a lower bound on the
current natural rate of unemployment. Conversely, if the job creation curve is flat,
then the increase in the natural rate is given by the 1.6 percentage point horizontal
shift in the Beveridge curve at the 3.1 percent vacancy rate. So our upper-bound
estimate of the natural rate of unemployment is 6.6 percent. Thus, we find that if
the currently estimated shift in the Beveridge curve is permanent and the economy
returns to its long-run job creation curve, then the long-run natural rate of unemployment has increased from its 5 percent level in 2007 to somewhere between 5.5

Did the Natural Rate of Unemployment Rise?

15

and 6.6 percent as of November 2011.6 In the absence of additional evidence to


pin down its exact value, we regard 6 percent, the approximate midpoint of this
range, as our preferred estimate of the current long-run natural rate of unemployment. According to our estimate of the shifted BC, this 6 percent natural rate of
unemployment corresponds to a new natural vacancy rate of 3.3 percent. This is
substantially higher than the 3.0 percent natural vacancy rate associated with the
pre-recession natural rate of unemployment and fitted Beveridge curve.
Implications for Potential GDP
In November 2011, the unemployment rate was 8.7 percent, 2.7 percentage
points above our estimate of the new natural rate, while the vacancy rate was
2.3 percent, 1.0 percentage point lower than the new natural vacancy rate. This
2.7 percentage point unemployment gap, by definition, reflects an ongoing cyclical
shortfall in the demand for labor associated with the recent recession.
This shortfall in labor demand, or unemployment gap, can be mapped into a
measure of the shortfall in the level of overall economic activity relative to the level
that would have occurred in the absence of the business cycle. The latter measure
is known as potential GDP and the percentage difference between actual GDP and
potential GDP is known as the output gap. The relatively stable statistical relationship between these unemployment and output gaps over a long historical period
is known as Okuns Law, named after Arthur Okun (1962). Figure 6 shows Okuns
Law based on the output and unemployment gaps implied by the Congressional
Budget Offices (2011) historical estimates of potential GDP and the natural rate of
unemployment. The figure suggests that, as a reasonable rule of thumb, for every
percentage point that the unemployment rate exceeds its natural rate, GDP drops
two percentage points below its potential.
During the recession and in 2009 and 2010, we saw historically large deviations from the unemployment/GDP relationship implied by Okuns Law, with the
unemployment rate being as much as a percentage point higher than implied by
the GDP gap. This was reflected in high average labor productivity growth during
that period (Daly and Hobijn 2010). However, the decline in the unemployment
rate in the first quarter of 2011, combined with revised and slower GDP growth, has
brought the unemployment and output gaps back in line with the historical Okuns
Law relationship.
Our analysis above suggested that the natural rate of unemployment is likely to
be about a percentage point higher than the Congressional Budget Office estimate
used in Figure 6. In that case, the unemployment gap would be a percentage point
lower as well and, to be in line with Okuns Law, potential GDP would be about

As the recovery has proceeded, our estimated range for the natural rate has been falling. For example,
in January 2011 we estimated the range to be bounded at 6.9 percent rather than the 6.6 percent we find
currently. We interpret this decline as partially reflecting data revisions to JOLTS and partially reflecting
the evolution of unemployment and vacancies in 2011. The latter of these two points highlights the
transitory nature of recent changes in the natural rate, which we discuss in more detail below.

16

Journal of Economic Perspectives

Figure 6
Okuns Law
6
5
2011Q3

Unemployment gap (percent)

4
3
2

Since 2007 recession


1

Before 2007 recession

0
1
2
3
4
10

4
2
Output gap (percent)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Congressional Budget Office, and
authors calculations.
Note: The black dots indicate data since the 2007 recession.

2 percent less than the current CBO estimate, which amounts to $332 billion of
annual GDP. The corrected output gap in 2011Q3 would be 4.9 percent rather than
6.9 percent.
In the context of the IS-LM/AS-AD framework that is often used in textbooks on
macroeconomics (for example, Abel, Bernanke, and Croushore 2011, chap. 9), this
conclusion implies that the shortfall of actual GDP relative to its full employment
level, often referred to as economic slack, is less than the CBO estimates. However,
even if the output gap since the beginning of the recession was 2 percentage points
lower than currently estimated by the Congressional Budget Office, this recession
would still be the second-deepest of the last 60 years, after that of the early 1980s.

What is Shifting the Beveridge and Job Creation Curves?


What factors affect the positions of the Beveridge and job creation curves?
Table 1 lists the five factors we consider. The factors are divided into two groups:
cyclical factors that cause a shortfall in aggregate demand and higher layoff rates,

Mary C. Daly, Bart Hobijn, Aysegl S ahin, and Robert G. Valletta

17

Table 1
Factors that Move the Beveridge Curve (BC) and the Job Creation Curve (JCC)
Shifter

JCC

BC

Transitory or Permanent

Cyclical factors
Shortfall in aggregate demand
Elevated layoffs rate

Transitory
Transitory

Structural/Noncyclical factors
Decrease in match efficiency (mismatch)
Increased generosity of unemployment insurance
Uncertainty

Mostly transitory
Transitory
Transitory

and structural or noncyclical factors that have a persistent effect on the natural
rate of unemployment. In our discussion below, we ignore the first two (cyclical)
factors in the table and focus on the other factors because our intent is to identify
changes in the natural rate of unemployment that are independent of persistent
shortfalls in aggregate demand. Weak aggregate demand drives the shortfall in
labor demand that depresses job creation and, for a given Beveridge curve, generates cyclical movements along a fixed Beveridge curve. Elevated layoffs are closely
related to weak aggregate demand since layoffs typically rise when aggregate
demand weakens. An increase in the rate of layoffs can cause an outward shift in
the Beveridge curve, suggesting that an increase in layoffs contributed to the shifts
that we estimated above. However, variation in layoff rates tend to play an important
role during the onset of recessions, when labor demand plunges, but a limited role
during recoveries, when labor demand improves.7 Since the measured layoffs rate
from the JOLTS data has returned to its pre-recession levels, we do not consider
them a concern for the labor market recovery going forward and therefore do not
address them here.
In the remainder of this section we provide recent empirical evidence on the
potential importance of each of the structural/noncyclical factors in Table 1 and
discuss whether these factors are likely to be transitory or permanent.
Mismatch
The mismatch argument for sustained increases in the unemployment rate
and the natural rate of unemployment is predicated on imbalances in labor supply
and demand across industry sectors, geographic areas, or skill groups. Of course,
labor markets always display a certain degree of mismatchor else all job vacancies
would fill immediately. However, any rise in mismatch above its usual level makes
it harder than usual for workers to find a job and more expensive for firms to fill
a vacancy. The result is a decline in match efficiency that both shifts the Beveridge
7

For U.S. evidence on this point, see among others, Darby, Haltiwanger, and Plant (1985, 1986) and
Fujita and Ramey (2009). Elsby, Hobijn, and Sahin (2008) show that this is also true across countries.

18

Journal of Economic Perspectives

Figure 7
Industry Mismatch
7

Percent

0
1970

1975

1980

1985

1990

1995

2000

2005

2010

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics and authors calculations.


Notes: The y-axis shows the standard deviation of payroll employment growth (12-month change) across
13 major industry categories, weighted by industry employment shares. The grey bars indicate recessions.

curve out and the job creation curve down. In the case of the BC, mismatch makes
it harder to form matches, moving the curve out. In the case of the JCC, mismatch
increases the search cost to firms for a given job value, pushing the curve down.
Mismatch is often regarded as a main potential cause of a long-run increase in the
natural rate since training or relocating workers and jobs take a substantial amount
of time.
A highly uneven distribution of job gains and losses across industry sectors and
states is an indication of mismatch in the sense that it suggests that those who are
unemployed did not work in industries and regions where hiring is taking place.
As shown in Figure 7, which displays the standard deviation of the rate of payroll
employment growth across 13 broad industry sectors that span the complete workforce, the dispersion of employment gains and losses across industries and states
spiked in the most recent recession. This pattern is similar to past recessions, and
in fact the dispersion of employment gains and losses peaked at a lower level in the
recent recession than in the recession of the mid-1970s. Moreover, as aggregate
employment stabilized and has started to grow again, the dispersion of employment gains and losses across industries and states has returned to its pre-recession

Did the Natural Rate of Unemployment Rise?

19

level. This suggests very little sectoral imbalance in employment growth during the
nascent recovery. Valletta and Kuang (2010b) show that dispersion in employment
growth across states also has returned to its pre-recession level.
Even though the dispersion of employment gains and losses across industries
and states has declined substantially, a large number of unemployed workers remain
who previously held jobs in sectors like construction and financial activities. Since
these sectors will probably take a fair amount of time to return to their pre-recession
employment levels, these workers might suffer from prolonged spells of unemployment due to skill mismatch.
To address this possibility, S ahin, Song, Topa, and Violante (2011) introduce
mismatch indices that combine measures of both labor demand and labor supply.
For labor demand, they use vacancy data from the Job Openings and Labor Turnover
Survey and the Conference Boards Help Wanted OnLine database, while for labor
supply they rely on unemployment measures from the Current Population Survey.
These indices show that both sectoral as well as occupational mismatch increased
during the recession but geographic mismatch across states remained relatively
low. At the industry level, this increase can be traced back to the construction,
durable goods manufacturing, health services, and education sectors. Occupational
mismatch rose mostly due to the construction, production work, healthcare, and
sales-related occupations. S ahin, Song, Topa, and Violante (2011) also quantify how
much of the recent rise in U.S. unemployment is due to an increase in mismatch
and find that higher mismatch across industries and occupations accounts for 0.6
to 1.7 percentage points of the recent rise in the unemployment rate. Geographical
mismatch turns out to be quantitatively insignificant.8
These findings linking mismatch to the observed unemployment rate do not
necessarily imply that the underlying natural rate of unemployment increased by
the same amount as the contribution of mismatch to the rise in the unemployment
rate. Just like the dispersion measures considered in Valletta and Kuang (2010b),
the mismatch indices constructed by S ahin, Song, Topa, and Violante (2011) rose
during the recession and then started to decline in 2010. Thus far, the evidence
suggests that mismatch has had a pronounced cyclical component, moving together
with the unemployment rate. While mismatch has contributed to the increase in
the unemployment rate, its current path suggests that it is not likely to cause a large
long-lasting increase in the natural rate of unemployment.
We do expect a modest increase in the natural rate due to the contraction
of the construction sector. A simple back-of-the-envelope calculation also supports
this view. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for construction workers has
been hovering in the range of 15 to 20 percent during the recovery, compared
8

This result for geographic mismatch is consistent with recent empirical papers, most notably Molloy,
Smith, and Wozniak (2011) and Schulhofer-Wohl (2010), and Valletta (2010) which all find a very
limited role for geographic immobility of unemployed individuals whose home values have fallen below
the amount owed on their mortgages (house lock). Recent theoretical work by Sterk (2010) suggests
that although house lock will lead to an outward shift in the Beveridge curve, the likely shift is much
smaller than the one depicted in Figure 2.

20

Journal of Economic Perspectives

with a more typical rate from 2003 to 2006 of about 7 to 8 percent. This represents
about 1.25 million more unemployed construction workers in the current recovery
than was typical during the preceding expansion. Assuming that half of them are
re-employable in other industriesa plausible estimate given the recent evidence
on industry mobility of workers (for example, Bjelland, Fallick, Haltiwanger, and
McEntarfer 2010)the decline of construction would cause structural unemployment to increase by only about 0.4 percentage point. Because most construction
workers are not hired through formal job openings, we expect the effect of this type
of mismatch on the long-run job creation curve to be limited. Instead, we regard
this effect of mismatch on the natural rate of unemployment as mainly due to the
persistent part of the contribution of the construction sector to the outward shift
of the Beveridge curve calculated by Barnichon, Elsby, Hobijn, and S ahin (2010).
Extended Unemployment Benefits
Extensions of unemployment insurance are a standard policy response to
elevated cyclical unemployment, and the sharp increase in the unemployment
rate during the 20072009 recession resulted in an unprecedented increase in the
potential duration of receipt for unemployment benefits. Beginning in June 2008,
the maximum duration of unemployment insurance benefits was extended multiple
times, reaching 99 weeks for most job seekers eligible for unemployment insurance
as of late 2009.9 Congress has allowed the primary extension program to expire twice,
most notably for nearly two months in JuneJuly of 2010, but in each case renewed
the extensions, which as of this writing are effective through early March 2012.
In the context of the job matching function described earlier, increased
availability of unemployment insurance benefits is likely to increase the duration
of unemployment through two primary behavioral channels. First, the extension
of unemployment insurance benefits, which represents an increase in their value,
may reduce the intensity with which unemployed individuals eligible for these
benefits search for work, along with their likelihood of accepting a given job offer.
This occurs because the additional unemployment insurance benefits reduce the
net gains from finding a job and also serve as an income cushion that helps households maintain acceptable consumption levels in the face of unemployment shocks
(Chetty 2008). Alternatively, the measured unemployment rate may be artificially
inflated because some individuals who are not actively searching for work are identifying themselves as active searchers in order to receive unemployment insurance
benefits (a reporting effect, in the language of Card, Chetty, and Weber 2007).
These behavioral effects on job search will increase the noncyclical or structural
9

The joint federal-state unemployment insurance program provides up to 26 weeks of normal benefits.
The recent benefit extensions reflect the impact of two federally funded programs: the permanently
authorized Extended Benefits program, which provides up to 20 additional weeks of benefits, and the
special Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which provides up to 53 weeks of benefits, depending
on the unemployment rate in the recipients state of prior employment (which causes the share of
unemployed workers eligible for the 99-week maximum to change over time). The previous maximum
eligibility was 65 weeks under the Federal Supplemental Benefits program in the mid-1970s.

Mary C. Daly, Bart Hobijn, Aysegl S ahin, and Robert G. Valletta

21

component of the unemployment rate during the period over which extended
benefits are available.10
Assessing the magnitude of the extended unemployment insurance effect is challengingand the challenge is even more difficult under the unusually weak labor
market conditions of the last few years, which by themselves have led to unusually
long unemployment durations. Based on existing empirical research using U.S. data,
Chetty (2008) noted that a 10 percent increase in the overall value of unemployment
insurance benefits increases unemployment durations by 48 percent. Other estimates, particularly those that focus on extension periods rather than the dollar value
of benefits, lie below this range (for example, Card and Levine 2000). Thus, a wide
range of uncertainty exists around the impact of unemployment insurance extensions
on the duration of unemployment. Moreover, as noted by others (for example, Katz
2010), the effect of unemployment insurance benefits on job search likely was higher
in the 1970s and 1980s than it is now, due to the earlier periods greater reliance on
temporary layoffs and the corresponding sensitivity of recall dates to unemployment
insurance benefits. As such, reliance on past estimates of the effects of the generosity
of unemployment insurance benefits on the duration on unemployment is likely to
lead to overestimates in the current economic environment.
Our own empirical assessment, reported in Daly, Hobijn, and Valletta (2011)
and based on the methodology introduced in Valletta and Kuang (2010a), focuses
on direct calculation and comparison of the duration of unemployment for individuals who are eligible or not eligible for unemployment insurance benefits, as
reflected in their reported reason for unemployment. The receipt of unemployment insurance benefits generally is restricted to individuals who are unemployed
through no fault of their own, to quote U.S. Labor Department eligibility guidelines, and have recent employment history that allows them to meet a base earnings
test. In terms of the data on cause of unemployment from the Current Population
Survey, individuals who are eligible for unemployment insurance are concentrated
among the unemployed who classify themselves as job losers, while those who are
ineligible tend to be voluntary job leavers and labor force entrants. The eligible
( job losers) group accounted for about two-thirds of the unemployed as of late
2009, which was very close to the share of actual unemployment insurance recipients in overall unemployment.
During the recent recession and its aftermath, unemployment durations rose
substantially from their pre-recession baseline levels, both for those who are eligible
for unemployment insurance and for others. According to the measure of expected
completed duration used by Valletta and Kuang (2010a), duration approximately
doubled, from about 18 weeks to about 35 weeks. However, the increase in duration
10

Our narrow focus on the direct behavioral effects of extended unemployment insurance ignores the
potential aggregate demand stimulus provided by such benefits, which reduces the cyclical component of
the unemployment rate but does not affect the level of structural unemployment. Some recent research
suggests that multiplier effects of normal and extended unemployment insurance payments may be
quite large (for example, Vroman 2010). It is possible that the reduction in cyclical unemployment from
this channel may exceed the increase in the structural component from the micro-behavioral channel.

22

Journal of Economic Perspectives

of unemployment was larger for those eligible for unemployment benefits, by about
3 weeks. If one attributes all of this difference to eligibility for extended unemployment insurance benefits, which is the primary factor that differentially affected eligible
and ineligible individuals during the recession, then the extension of unemployment
insurance raised the unemployment rate by about 0.8 percentage points. These results
are relatively insensitive to alternative assumptions about the relationship between the
stated reason for unemployment in the Current Population Survey data and likely
eligibility for unemployment insurance. Other recent formal estimates of the effect
of extended unemployment insurance benefits on the natural rate of unemployment
are generally smaller, ranging from about 0.1 to 0.7 percentage points (Aaronson,
Mazumder, and Schecter 2010; Farber and Valletta 2011; Rothstein, forthcoming) up
to a maximum of 1.2 percentage points (Fujita 2011).
The effect of extended unemployment insurance on the unemployment rate is
expected to dissipate as labor market conditions improve and the extended unemployment insurance provisions expire. As a result, the extensions of unemployment
insurance do not affect the long-run job creation curve.11 As extended unemployment insurance provisions expire, the shifted Beveridge curve is expected to move
back inwards.
Uncertainty
Extensive anecdotal evidence suggests that the severity and persistence of
the recession and associated financial crisis, combined with significant changes
in federal government policies such as the DoddFrank financial reform bill, the
Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, along with potential changes in energy
policy have increased firms uncertainty about the environment in which they are
operating. In a labor market search framework with fixed hiring and firing costs,
such uncertainty about the future state of aggregate demand lowers the option
value of hiring new workers, thereby putting downward pressure on job creation
(Bentolila and Bertola 1990; Bloom 2009). According to such models, firms may
choose to incur the fixed cost of investing in workers based on the option value
of using them when they are needed for production. As uncertainty about future
demand increases, the option value of making this up-front investment is reduced
and fewer workers are demanded. In this way, uncertainty about economic conditions and policy might contribute to the outward shift in the Beveridge curve and,
more importantly, to the low number of vacancies firms are posting.
Theoretical models of jobless recoveries, like Van Rens (2004) and Koenders
and Rogerson (2005), suggest that firms might postpone hiring by temporarily
boosting productivity growth. In Van Rens (2004), faster productivity growth comes
from moving workers from the production of intangibles to the production of

11

Extended unemployment insurance might raise current reservation wages and thus suppress job
creation in the short run. No quantitative analysis of this short-run effect exists. However, we expect this
short-run effect of extended unemployment insurance on the job creation curve to be small, because it
is offset by the aggregate demand stimulus provided by unemployment insurance payments.

Did the Natural Rate of Unemployment Rise?

23

measured output. In Koenders and Rogerson (2005), firms choose to adopt organizational changes that improve productivity but were temporarily shelved during
the prior expansion. In either case, the reorientation of production activity reduces
the rate of hiring but raises productivity growth. Effects of this sort might have
driven the significant deviation from Okuns Law in Figure 6 during 2009 and 2010
(Daly and Hobijn 2010). However, such temporary measures only raise productivity
growth in the short run. If uncertainty remains elevated, the effect of these measures
on productivity growth is likely to diminish and uncertainty will mainly reduce job
creation. This pattern is consistent with the combination of low productivity growth
and low job creation in the first half of 2011.
Uncertainty might also cause firms that create vacancies to become more
selective about filling them. Such a change in firms hiring decisions would cause
a decline in the number of hires per vacancy; this is consistent with a reduction in
recruiting intensity identified by Davis, Faberman, and Haltiwanger (2010).
Though the high level of uncertainty is a possible explanation for the joint
weakness in vacancy creation and vacancy yields (hires per vacancy) relative to
the strong productivity growth during the first part of the recovery, we know of no
studies that have tried to quantify this effect. Since we expect firms uncertainty
about the economic environment to dissipate as the recovery persists and gains
momentum, we anticipate that any increase in the natural rate of unemployment
arising from uncertainty is likely to be temporary rather than permanent.

Conclusion
The stubbornly high rate of unemployment in the face of ongoing GDP
growth and rising job openings has raised concerns that the level of structural
unemployment, or the natural rate of unemployment, has risen over the past
few years in the United States. This possibility raises important policy issues since
short-run monetary and fiscal stabilization policies are not designed to alleviate
structural unemployment and can be costly if misapplied. Our estimates suggest
that the natural rate of unemployment has risen from its pre-recession level of
5.0 percent to a value between 5.5 and 6.6 percent, with our preferred estimate
lying at the midpoint of approximately 6 percent. This value implies an unemployment gap of over 2.7 percentage points in late 2011, which remains quite
high. Thus, even with a higher natural rate of unemployment, considerable slack
remains in the labor market.
There are a number of unanswered questions for researchers in this area. Our
analysis relied on a rudimentary formulation and estimation of the job creation
curve that relates firms decisions about job vacancies to the level of unemployment.
There may be factors that we have not identified or measured well that permanently restrain vacancy and job creation going forward. Perhaps most vexing, the
20072009 recession is now the third successive one in which the U.S. economy has
experienced a jobless recovery (that is, the rate of unemployment has remained

24

Journal of Economic Perspectives

high for years after the recession is deemed to have ended). It is not yet clear
how to apply the common terminology of cyclical and structural unemployment
to this phenomenon. Is the U.S. economy now experiencing greater fluctuations
in structural unemployment than in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s? Or is it experiencing longer-run bouts of cyclical unemployment than in those decades? A better
understanding of the determinants of job creation in the aftermath of recession
is crucial for improving the empirical analysis of equilibrium models of frictional
unemployment, and it also holds promise for improving labor market policies
aimed at combating jobless recoveries.

The authors are grateful to Glenn Rudebusch and John Williams for their suggestions
and comments. The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the authors and are not
attributable to the Federal Reserve Banks of New York and San Francisco or the Federal
Reserve System.

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